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Sister of Saudi aid worker jailed over Twitter account speaks out as Saudi cultural investment expands with PGA Tour merger

Sister of jailed Saudi aid worker speaks out
Sister of jailed aid worker sounds alarm about Twitter's ties to Saudi Arabia 07:35

The American sister of a Saudi aid worker who was jailed over his satirical Twitter feed is voicing concerns about Saudi Arabia's reach into the social media giant, as the Arab nation pursues an emergent role in culture and professional sports.

In an interview with CBS News, Areej al-Sadhan said she believes Twitter bears some responsibility for the arrest, torture and imprisonment of her brother, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, after Saudi agents unmasked his anonymous account.  

"They broke his hand, smashed his fingers, saying this is the hand you tweet with," Areej al-Sadhan told CBS News chief investigative correspondent Jim Axelrod. "They tortured him with electric shocks, beating and sleep deprivation." 

Undated photo of Areej al-Sadhan with her brother, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan Photo provided by Areej al-Sadhan

Areej's brother, Abdhulrahman al-Sadhan was arrested in Riyadh in 2018, and three years later in a secret hearing, a Saudi court sentenced him to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban, for maintaining an anonymous Twitter account that mocked the Kingdom's leaders and religious figures. 

Areej filed a lawsuit last month, accusing Twitter of becoming "a tool of transnational repression" by allowing Abdulrhaman's identity to be improperly divulged to Saudi officials in 2015, three years before he was arrested. 

Twitter responded to detailed questions from CBS News about the Saudi aid worker's jailing and alleged torture with an automated reply — an email with a poop emoji.

The interview aired as Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his latest visit to the kingdom, and as Saudi Arabia made headlines for the PGA Tour move to merge with LIV Golf, the latest high profile investment by the oil-rich nation to enter Western culture and sport.

When Elon Musk took over Twitter last fall, he did so with financial backing from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The deal reaffirmed a close commercial relationship between the social media company and the Saudis that stretched back more than a decade — a bond Areej al-Sadhan says led to the kidnapping and torture of her little brother.

Twitter remains a critically important platform within Saudi Arabia, Areej told Axelrod. 

"There is no freedom [of] speech," she said. "So, Twitter became more like the forum for people to express themselves, mostly anonymously."

Areej, an American citizen, and her brother, Abdulrahman, a Saudi national, split time between the two countries growing up. After he finished school in California in 2013, Abdulrahman returned to Riyadh to work at the Red Crescent Society. It was from that office in March 2018, that he was arrested.

According to Areej's lawsuit, the Saudi government accused Abdulrahman of "funding and supporting terrorism and sending tweets that would prejudice the public order and religious values." 

"They want people to be afraid to speak out, to say, if you dare to criticize us, this is what we're going to charge you with," said Areej, who has not spoken to her brother — still in prison and inaccessible — for more than five years. 

"I want proof of life. I want to be able to see my brother and speak to him and make sure that he is okay," Areej said. "I miss him dearly."

"Weaponized" information

Areej's civil suit cites a recent criminal case in California that she claims shows Twitter's complicity in disclosing Abdulrahman's identity. Last August, a former Twitter manager named Ahmad Abouammo was convicted of acting as a foreign agent for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of two employees caught accepting bribes to pass along confidential user data in violation of the company's privacy policy. 

Evidence at the trial showed Abdulrahman's personal information was accessed in 2015 by one of the employees, at the request of Saudi officials. 

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia weaponized that information," said attorney Jim Walden, who represents Areej al-Sadhan in the civil lawsuit. "None of this would've happened, but for Twitter's corruption. Twitter lit the fuse."

Twitter itself was never charged, and before Musk bought the company, the company said it cut off access to the bad actors.

Still, the suit alleges Twitter "abetted acts of murder, kidnapping, and torture." Walden said Abdulrahman would still be anonymous and still be free if not for the leak from Twitter. He alleges a conspiracy forged by the growing financial ties between the social media company and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

"Given the closeness of the relationship, given the amount of money that the Saudis were giving Twitter, it's impossible to conclude that Twitter had no idea this was happening," Walden said. 

Sen. Chris Murphy: Is there special access?

When Elon Musk bought Twitter last year, a Saudi fund called Kingdom Holding Company maintained its investment, according to financial disclosure forums. The fund now holds the second-largest stake in Twitter, behind Musk. 

"What I'm worried about as a condition of their deal with Musk to stay as an owner, that they got special access," Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut said, referring to the Saudis. 

Last October, Murphy asked the Biden administration to review whether Musk's Twitter deal had jeopardized national security by giving the Saudi government access to private user data, including the personal information of American citizens. He says the administration denied the request. 

"I don't know why the administration didn't look into this sale, but for a long time we've looked the other way at Saudi Arabia's behavior both domestically and in the region, because we wanted their oil," Murphy said. 

Kingdom Holding Company declined to comment on its current role in Twitter.  

"These people are serious about their threats"

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is also named as a defendant in Areej's lawsuit, declined to comment for this story. 

Saudi state media has circulated allegations Abdulrahman was a terrorist sympathizer with loyalties to ISIS. In correspondence with human rights investigators from the United Nations last year, the Saudi government maintained Abdulrahman had violated terrorism laws and denied his family's claims of torture. However, those U.N. investigators weren't convinced, and found in a recent opinion that Abdulrahman's arrest and detention were "arbitrary" and "lack[ed] a legal basis," adding "no trial should have taken place."

The State Department said it is aware of Abdulrahman's case and Areej's advocacy, but declined further comment. The department has previously expressed concern over Abdulrahman's sentence and his family's allegations of torture. 

Abdulrahman's case is not unique; others have been prosecuted in Saudi Arabia in response to their social media use, according to human rights groups. Last August, Salma al-Shehab, a Ph.D. student at Leeds University and mother of two, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets in support of a woman's rights. Later that month, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was sentenced to 45 years in prison for reportedly tweeting her opinions in violation of counterterrorism laws.  

This week, reports surfaced about a popular 29-year-old fitness instructor on social media, Manahel al-Otaibi, who has been detained since November 2022 as a result of her posts. She has been charged with "defaming the kingdom at home and abroad, calling for rebellion against public order and society's traditions and customs and challenging the judiciary and its justice," according to the Associated Press. 

Ahead of Secretary Blinken's trip, advocacy groups urged him to raise human rights abuses with Saudi officials, and ask that he call for the release of those that have been detained "for political reasons mostly related to imaginary 'security' threats." 

Areej said she has received threats for speaking out about her brother, including on her Twitter account. Her lawsuit cites threats to murder and rape her, that she says are the work of Saudi leadership.  

"I mean, this is horrendous, this is crazy," she said. "And of course, when you remember what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, you know how serious that is. These people are serious about their threats."

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